My thoughts and observations on why my kids are drawn to and like the books that they like.
- TL;DR overview
- book cover: style, read similar books
- method of discovery: library, word of mouth, friend's bookshelf, the book store
- non-sequiturs and humor
- narrator: rhyming, and word pacing
- the perfect kids book
Judge a Book by Its Cover, It's OK
I've been trying to understand why my children gravitate to and fall in love with books. The most prominent, and obvious reason that my children gravitate to a book is its cover. It may seem obvious, but the condition of a book, the quality of the design, whether or not the cover is hard are all factors in deciding if a kid will pick up a book.
Books with a timeless design are ones that do well in this regard. Books like those of Eric Carle do well because he uses an abstract illustration style that uses high contrast colors. The abstract style also allows wide amounts of interpretation of the figures and shapes. Carle's books also have high sentimental and nostalgic value for parents. His book "The Very Hungry Catepillar" came out over 25 years ago. I, like many parents, am now reading it to my kids -- thereby increasing the likelihood that the book will remain a classic.
There are other types that do well with my kids. Books in a contemporary cartoon, thick-lined art style attracts both my son's and my attention. "The Dinosaur vs. X" series by Bob Shea has received quite a bit of reads. The signature of the book is the repeating pattern "Dinosaur versus..." every other page as the dinosaur progresses through challenges.
For my daughter, she highly prefers anything with a princess, ballerina, or when they're combined in books like the "The Nutcracker" get her attention. Books with girls or females on the cover also catch her eye. I've been unable to figure out the pattern she uses when finding books, but her style is deliberate in how she thinks about and searches for books.
Finding New + Good Kid Books = Hard
How we learn about a new kids book is important. The most common places we discover books is at the library, followed by word of mouth, a friend's house, and bookstores.
At the Whim of a Librarian
The library is currently our #1 place for discovering new kid books. At our nearby library there is a room dedicated to children's books. In the center of the room is a new and noteworthy bookshelf. This is where the librarian places either newly acquired books or books that have recently received press or awards. We recently borrowed recent Geisel Award winning book "The Watermelon Seed" by Grego Pizzoli. The book is a great example of a book with the proper attention placed on writing and simple yet communicative illustration. My kid's didn't particularly like the book. However, I attribute that to the book topic as it could do very well during summertime.
Librarians currently promote books in a time-inefficient manner. They use the space on shelves to promote books that either need circulation, or that they think could be of interest to their patrons. They will place books with their covers facing out in order to attract attention -- it works. I initially thought there was a process for which books were promoted, but at my library book choice depends on who is in charge. The kids are often drawn to the books with covers out so this makes up most of the books they select.
For me, I have been manually tracking the authors of books we've read several times. I then find them on the shelf and thumb through alternative books to consider. This lead me to creating nainai the reading diary for kids.
Worth a Shot
The next method for finding new books is from friends through word of mouth. It doesn't happen often, but when a friend recommends a book it's almost always worth buying outright. The latest recommendation I received was for "Battle Bunny" by Jon Scieszka a very creative and subversive take on a child's book.
The decision process for buying the book is dependent on the ages of the recommender's children. Book recommendations from parents with children within an age range of 0.5-1 years are easy buys.
Your Friend's Kid's Bookshelf
Another method for discovering books is from viewing the bookshelves of our friend's kids. Like word of mouth recommendations, the biggest vote of confidence for any kid's product is another parent displaying it in their home. On playdates at a friend's house, books left within arms reach are likely to be glanced at. Also, if one child begins reading then the others will follow. I mentally keep note of interesting books that my friends read to their kids for later borrowing or buying.
I'm a Sucker for Books at Museum Stores
Finally, and albeit most commonplace for impulse book purchases for my kids is at Museum and Airport book stores. The books are usually a last minute gift from traveling. Often the decision to buy is a mixture of nostalgia or an eye-catching design. Bookstores like the SoMa Museum store at SFO are places where I've found several great books. One of our current favorites is "Flip-o-Saurus" by Britta Drehsen.
It Does Not Follow
My son's continued interest in a book hinges on whether or not the book's narrator (me) can create a sort of verbal nonsequitor. He loves it if a book has a natural progression of story and unexpectedly turns goofy. I've observed that the most effective jokes are usually short and simple statements. A well-timed non-sequitor can send him into fits of laughter. He will often ask me to repeat the setup and punch line several times in a row.
Two books in particular that have this is: Bobo the Sailor Man by Eileen Rosenthal -- "Poison mushrooms / Let's kick them!", and How to Train a Train by Jason Carter Eaton -- while going through the potential names for a train the name eventually diverge into craziness.
For me, the narrator, I love books that fun to read for my audience and me. I am often acting in a ridiculous manner to further entertain my readers so a poorly written book stands out.
I have observed that most kids books fall into a couple camps: There is the beautifully illustrated book with poor writing or lacking depth. There is also the interesting book that got butchered in editing. Then there is the well balanced book that has a fun to follow story, and illustrations that are memorable or interesting.
It is extremely hard to find a book that is written well, paced well, illustrated well, and fun to read aloud. One particular well-written book is "Freight Train" by Donald Crews. The pacing of words is perfect. Often times my kids will join in as we read. It is as if the reader is a freight train rearing up to a crossroad, passing, and leaving into the distance.
Story vs Abstract Concepts
I think a book has most staying power if the story it tells is abstract and open to interpretation, but has a conclusive ending. Most often, for our kids, we read books from the library while hunting for books they love. These books become the books that we add to our home library. This generally means that if the first read of a book has too much of a conclusive ending then there is less likely of a reason for an additional read.
Examples of this are books like this are "Bee-Bim-Bap" by Linda Sue Park. This story is about a little girl helping her mother prepare the Korean dish Bi Bim Bap. Once it's done it's done. This sort of book would be most interesting to kids with families who prepare the dish frequently.
An example of a book with a more abstract and inconclusive ending is the Halloween-themed book "On A Windy Night" by Nancy Raines Day and illustrated by George Bates is a story about a boy returning home alone from trick-or-treating. The writer and illustators use of abstract concepts is very well executed. The illustrations communicate the fear a child's imagination creates while alone in the dark. This helps to deliver on the general concept of the book which is that our imaginations can trick us into thinking we're seeing many things that aren't there... or are they?
The Perfect Kids Book
This line of thought got me into thinking what the ideal kids book could look like:
- have an abstract cartoony cover
- bright contrast colors
- hardcover book
- a simple title
- no more than 4 words
- allow room for sequels
- aim would be to be sold in a museum store
- meant to be read outloud
- story can be about nothing in particular
- the characters in the story would go on a progressive journey
- goes through two story arcs that leads the narrator to abruptly let out a loud funny sound
- halfway through the book, include a repetitious sentence every other page
- ends at a point where the characters make it back from their journey, slightly changed
I wonder how seasonality and culture factors into whether a kid likes a new book.